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Hiring a CEO - Best Practices for Looking Outside Your Organization for a Chief Executive

So you need to hire a CEO.

First of all: breathe. You’re probably no stranger to hiring. And all those skills you’ve developed around hiring the right people for the right positions? They’re still 100% valid. You still want to screen your initial applications carefully, conduct phone conversations to make sure you’re on the same page, ask meaningful interview questions, dig skeptically when answers are vague or don’t add up, use assessments where appropriate, and make reasonable offers when it comes to salary.

So what’s the difference when it comes to hiring a CEO? In most cases, hiring is done either by the person’s direct supervisor, or someone just a bit higher than that on the organizational chart, such as their “grandboss”. When it comes to hiring a CEO, however, they don’t have a boss so much as they are The Boss.

Hiring for your C-Suite - SelectOne

Those doing the hiring are usually either a Board of Directors (or similar committee) or the original founder of the company. In many cases, these folks have never actually worked as a CEO before, which makes it feel all the more stressful. Additionally, the number of people who are well qualified to serve as a CEO are fewer and more far between than those who are similarly qualified to work in more junior positions.

So while most best practices for hiring a CEO are no different from those for hiring in general, there are a few that are notably unique. These are a few of those.

Choose your search committee well.

Hiring is often a time-consuming process. As a general rule, it makes no sense to have the entire Board of Directors involved in this process on an intimate level. Typically, this means that the Board identifies a search committee that will conduct much of the process themselves, then make a recommendation about who to hire that the Board as a whole accepts. If you’re an individual founder without a Board, you’ll want to form a search committee as well; nobody should hire a CEO entirely on their own.

Qualities of a good search committee:

  • Members are selected because they’re right for the task, not just because they volunteered and have some spare time.
  • Not so large that it’s impossible to arrange for all to meet.
  • Includes diverse perspectives, priorities, and types of experience.
  • Includes both current and future (and possibly past) leaders.
  • Shows tact, trustworthiness, and honesty.
  • Willing to set aside personal preferences to make the best choice for the company.
  • Willing to listen to the perspectives of employees.

A thrown-together search committee will not only struggle to come to a unified vision, it can also leave applicants with a poor impression of your organization at the very highest levels. Given how important relationships are between businesses and their executives, this is an area in which you don’t want to stumble.

Go beyond passive recruitment.

Potential CEOs are not typically scouring every available job site hunting down every opportunity in the country. There’s no union hall for out-of-work CEOs where you can pop by and pick someone who seems motivated and qualified.

Especially if you’re located outside of major economic hubs, you will probably discover that you’ll be best served by actively recruiting people whose profile interests you, even if they’re currently employed elsewhere.

If you’ve never done this before, it can feel intimidating! But so long as you remain unfailingly polite, most people won’t be in the least offended that you expressed an interest in them.

Understand your place in the market.

If you’re quite large, prestigious, or have an unusually impressive amount of money to spend on salary, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to attract someone with previous C-suite or even CEO experience at another organization.

If you’re not (and there’s no shame in that!), you’re more likely to be recruiting COOs, CFOs, or even upper-level managers with titles like Vice President of XYZ. In these cases, the CEO title and the responsibility that comes with it are big recruitment factors.

The trick is to use your basic hiring skills to uncover the leadership and other abilities of candidates regardless of their previous job titles. You may find that the COO at one company was micromanaged by the CEO and made very few strategic decisions, while the VP of Operations at another company was largely autonomous and led processes much more in line with your company’s current needs.

Festina lente: make haste, slowly.

Hiring a CEO requires a uniquely calm sense of urgency. It is important to never rush the process. If a good candidate hasn’t been found, don’t go with the best of the worst; start the search over again. On the other hand, you risk your top candidates accepting positions elsewhere if you don’t move quickly once you have identified them.

For this reason it’s important to do most of your consultation on precisely what you’re looking for and how you’ll go about it before actually doing any recruiting. If it takes extra weeks to gain a real understanding of your needs, take them. Once you have what you’re looking for, move swiftly.

Are you concerned about the process of hiring for the C-suite?

You’re not alone, and there are resources available to help you through the process. Download your free copy of Attracting Leaders: Hiring for Your C-Suite to learn more.

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